Getting to a destination, as the saying goes, is half the fun.
But that wasn't always the case for those making the journey between major cities along Ontario's 401 and 400 highways.
From tourists to truck drivers, the experience at the highway service centres was the same: grungy washrooms, dark and dingy eating areas, lacklustre amenities and the robust scent of motor oil mixing with canola oil from fast-food deep fryers.
The centres were a necessary, if unpleasant, place to stop, eat, refuel and use the facilities before hightailing it back on the road.
But in 2009, the Ontario government decided that its centres deserved a much-needed upgrade and began accepting proposals to refurbish the once-impressive stops, some of which had been in service for more than 40 years.
"It's important that people are able to rest and not over-tax themselves on the highway," says John McKendrick, Infrastructure Ontario's senior vice-president of project delivery. "It's important for the development of tourism in the province … and they're a very important service from a public infrastructure perspective."
When the province began exploring ways to revitalize its service centres, officials opted for a public-private partnership. The province would inject $200-million for the renovation of 20 of Ontario's 23 highway service centres along Highways 400 and 401 by 2013, and assign a new ONroute brand to enhance their appeal and recognition among travellers. Currently, 14 of the service centres have been redeveloped and are open for business.
A consortium of private partners led by Bethesda, Md.-based hospitality service firm HMS Host Corp. and Toronto-based private equity firm Kilmer Van Nostrand Co. Ltd. would come up with an additional $100-million for the project.
HMS Host will manage and maintain the sites over the course of their projected 50-year lifespan, while the province retains ownership of both the land and buildings. Revenue from concessions will be shared between the province and the consortium.
"The more money they make, the more we make," Mr. McKendrick adds. "We think these service centres will pay for themselves over the life of the concession."
Ontario's service centre upgrades are indicative of a wider trend to replace or revitalize highway amenities to not only extract precious tourism dollars from travellers but also to enhance safety.
Quebec recently set out to redevelop 10 of its highway service centres, seven in a public-private partnership and three run solely by the province. The buildings will be modernized and expanded, adding amenities such as food and retail, according to Transport Quebec spokesman Mario St. Pierre.
Like their predecessors, these new service stations are being built not only to last, but also to attract visitors for decades to come.
While Ontario laid out a strict set of guidelines for its highway facilities – ranging from green features to accessibility – Toronto's Quadrangle Architects Ltd., the designer of the new service centres, added impressive architectural features that paid homage to the surrounding landscape.
"This being a private-public partnership, it wasn't just about maximizing profit," Quadrangle principal Les Klein explains. "This was an opportunity for the province to brand itself in a unique way to travellers from within and travelling through the province. We're referring to these projects as shamelessly Canadian."
The building's facades are adorned with local stone, while the peaked roofs and glass facades that frame the spacious interiors are intended to evoke images of the rocky outcroppings that ripple through Central and Northern Ontario. These new service centres bear mostly the same design features, but with slightly different service offerings, depending on their size.
In a break from the past tradition of highway service centres bearing no connection to local communities, these renovated amenities – ranging in size from 8,000 to 22,000 square feet – will also bear the name of their nearest, often unsung, town and feature signage and screens promoting local events.
They will also be far more environmentally friendly than the service centres of yesteryear.
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Silver-certified buildings feature highly efficient fixtures in washrooms such as waterless urinals and touch-less faucets designed to reduce water use by 40 per cent. Adhesives, sealants and paints are low in volatile organic compounds. And yes, facilities for electric car charging are on the horizon.
The centres' design also includes enhanced accessibility features such as changing tables for infants and lower condiment counters and garbage cans to accommodate visitors in wheelchairs.
But not all of the initial design elements were a hit. Quadrangle originally proposed adding outdoor courtyards in the middle of each of the larger service centres. The feedback was anything but positive.
"We were framing up the first one and people told us it wasn't going to work," Mr. Klein recalls. "It was going to be too congested and we have a limited outdoor season in Ontario. So, instead we created an indoor lounge in the centre of the space."
What has received a resounding thumbs up, according to Michael Jones, vice-president of business development for HMS Host, are the addition of free WiFi and an expanded array of food and beverage options ranging from The Market – a fully equipped convenience store with healthy food options – to familiar names including KFC, Tim Hortons, New York Fries and Burger King.
For the health conscious, chains such as Extreme Pita have been added, while coffee connoisseurs will undoubtedly be pleased to learn that Starbucks will also grace the corridors of many centres in the ONroute network – which now feature 17 hospitality brands across the province, up from four or five in the old facilities, according to Mr. Jones.
While HMS Host won't reveal revenue estimates for the new facilities, Mr. Jones predicts that the larger centres will see foot traffic in excess of 1.5 million people annually.
But the question remains: Why build such aesthetically pleasing, sustainable and amenity-laden facilities when simpler ones would still meet the needs of these highways' relatively captive audiences?
"For a number of people who grew up making the trip to cities like Montreal or Windsor, the feedback we got over time was that these centres became less and less relevant to them as a consumer," Mr. Jones explains.
"Even people who made those trips on a regular basis decided they didn't necessarily have to stop – they found alternatives," he adds. "To put up four walls and do it in a fairly utilitarian fashion, especially when you're doing a long-term deal with the province that's reflective of the province, just wasn't the right thing to do."
Currently, 14 of Ontario's 20 new ONroute service centres are in operation including:
• Tilbury South (eastbound), between Windsor and Chatham-Kent
• Tilbury North (westbound), between Chatham-Kent and Windsor
• West Lorne (westbound), between London and Chatham-Kent
• Woodstock (eastbound), between Ingersoll and Woodstock
• Dutton (eastbound), between Chatham-Kent and London
• Bainsville (westbound), near the Quebec/Ontario border
• Trenton North (westbound), between Trenton and Cobourg
• Morrisburg (eastbound), between Prescott and Cornwall
•Trenton South (eastbound), between Cobourg and Trenton
• Ingleside (westbound), between Cornwall and Morrisburg
• Mallorytown North (westbound), between Ingleside and Kingston
• Napanee (westbound), between Belleville and Kingston
• Odessa (eastbound), between Kingston and Belleville
• Port Hope (eastbound), near Port Hope
Source: Ontario Ministry of Transportation
Quebec recently set out to redevelop 10 of its highway service centres, seven in a public-private partnership and three run solely by the province:
The seven service centres being developed in public-private partnership include:
• Magog (scheduled to open later this year)
The three owned and operated solely by the province include:
• St. Nicolas
• St. Michel
• Lavaltrie (scheduled to open later this year)
Source: Transports Quebec